Color Phases of Black Bear

More than any other North American animal, black bears appear in an array of shades. Their hair color ranges from black and brown to cinnamon and blond, and even to blue-gray and white.

Nearly all bears east of the Great Plains are black. Early settlers were the first to notice these bears, hence the name. Black fur is abrasion-resistant due to its melanin content in the brushy understory of eastern woodlands. Shades of brown, rather than black, make up 5 to 25 percent of the states bordering the Great Plains that are wooded. In Minnesota, around 5 percent of bears are brown. White or blond bears are uncommon in Minnesota; however, a young white bear was spotted there in 1997 and 1998.

Over half of black bears (Ursus americanus cinnamomum) in western states with mountain meadows and open park-like woodlands are brown, cinnamon, or blond. Light-colored fur lessens heat stress in direct sunshine and enables bears to forage for longer in areas with access to plenty of food. They could be hidden from predators in those open places by their lighter-colored fur. Black bears were probably killed by Ice Age predators in open locations where they couldn’t climb trees to flee. In certain places, grizzly bears still behave in that manner.

In the sun, some non-black black bears tan. When fresh dark brown fur is lost the following summer, it can bleach to almost blond. Two uncommon color phases are discovered in populations that are geographically isolated by mountains in coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska. On a few islands off the coast of British Columbia, the Kermode bear, a subspecies of the black bear (Ursus americanus kermodei), makes its home. Although the majority of them are black, up to 20 of them, known as Spirit Bears, live in select regions.

The Glacier Bear (Ursus americanus emmonsii), a different subspecies that dwells farther north, is found in southeast Alaska. Again, the majority are black, but a few have guard hairs with a strong bluish undertone. Mountain glaciers that isolated these subspecies during the Ice Age are now extinct or significantly diminished. Currently, the subspecies is only marginally separated from neighboring populations. The unique blue-gray color phase will become even more uncommon when these bears blend in with the local populations due to dominant black genes.